April 2, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Andrea Nevins
Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, New York City and various other U.S. cities, the documentary “Hysterical” features a group of well-known North American female stand-up comedians (who are mostly white, with a few African Americans, one Asian and one Latina) discussing their lives and careers.
Culture Clash: All of the women say that rampant sexism is the biggest problem with “gatekeepers” in stand-up comedy.
Culture Audience: “Hysterical” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a candid look at what it’s like to be a female stand-up comedian.
It’s no secret that stand-up comedy is a male-dominated business where men get paid much more than women overall, and men get the vast majority of jobs available at venues and media outlets that book stand-up comedians. And whenever there’s a documentary about stand-up comedians, women are also usually in the minority. The admirably insightful documentary film “Hysterical” puts women front and center, by having the entire movie be about well-known female stand-up comedians telling their stories through interviews, performances and some footage that follows them as they hang out with other comedians.
The comedians interviewed in the documentary represent multiple generations. There are those who started in stand-up comedy in the 1980s (Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Judy Gold and Wendy Liebman); the 1990s (Sherri Shepherd, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin, Bonnie McFarlane, Jessica Kirson and Lisa Lampanelli); the 2000s (Nikki Glaser, Carmen Lynch, Iliza Shlesinger and Fortune Feimster); and the 2010s (Kelly Bachman). They are all very different from each other but share a lot of similarities in their struggles and triumphs as female stand-up comedians. “Hysterical,” directed by Andrea Nevins, had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.
The documentary is raw, real and, of course, funny. But it also presents a brutally honest look at how society’s stereotypes of how women should act in public are entrenched in the sexism that withholds opportunities from female stand-up comedians and gives these opportunities to men instead. The movie also gives first-hand accounts about the dangerous realities of being a female stand-up comedian, whether it’s staying in unsafe areas while on tour, dealing with sexual harassment, or defending themselves from physically aggressive audience members and colleagues. These female comedians are not expecting pity when they tell their stories, but it’s clear that they want people to understand what they’ve been through to get to where they are.
Think about how people generally react when women curse out loud, compared to how people react when men say the same curse words, and you have an idea of how this double standard affects the careers of female stand-up comedians. Male comedians with an “angry” persona are generally more accepted than female comedians with an “angry” persona, which is why so many female stand-up comedians often smile during their stand-up act, even when they’re saying the angriest things. And because working stand-up comedians have to frequently travel, female stand-up comedians are judged more harshly if they’re parents away from home on tour, compared to male stand-up comedians who are parents away from home on tour.
“Hysterical” is a perfect title for this documentary because it has a double meaning: Hysterical can mean “hilarious,” or it can mean the word’s original definition of “someone losing control of their emotions or sanity,” which was a trait that was originally (and unfairly) attributed to women in the days when this word was invented. (For example, the word “hysterectomy” is related to the word “hysterical.”) “Hilarious” and “crazy” are how most female comedians are described at some point if they want to be considered successful.
The “crazy” label is one that many of these comedians wear with a badge of honor when it suits them, but they also know it can come at a price. All of the women in the documentary say, in one way or another, that being a stand-up comedian is a line of work that you have to be a little crazy to want to do. It’s a profession where people of any gender constantly get rejections, low pay (or no pay) at the bottom of the career ladder, and exploitation from all kinds of people. However, the women in the documentary say they know (because they’ve have experienced it) that whatever negativity that the comedy industry can throw at people, women get it worse overall then men do.
Just like their male counterparts, female comedians were often bullied as kids, they come from dysfunctional families, and/or they’ve suffered some type of past trauma. Depression, addiction and divorce are very common among stand-up comedians. But the women in this documentary say that women are more likely to be stigmatized for these issues than men are, simply because there are too many people who expect more perfection from women than they expect from men.
Over and over, the women share eerily similar stories of feeling inadequate or feeling like misfits in their childhood and adolescence. (Almost all come from middle-class or working-class families.) Being funny gave these comedians a sense of purpose and an identity. And laughter from telling jokes helped these comedians feel accepted in some way.
Liebman says she has a history of being clinically depressed, and comments on her family dynamics: “It gave me an identity to be the funny one.” Kirson says that her parents had a very unhappy marriage, her father was very tough on her, and she was often bullied by boys. “I was not a happy kid,” she remembers.
Glaser, a recovering anorexic/bulimic who describes having lifelong insecurities about her physical appearance, says her decision to become a comedian came early in her childhood: “I realized I wasn’t as pretty as my sister, and the pretty girls were the ones getting the roles in the plays.” Instead of trying to be a glamorous actress like other girls were doing, Glaser decided to become a comedian first. In the documentary, Glaser admits that she still feels insecure when comparing herself to her sister.
Feinstein says that her she got bad grades in her childhood due to a learning disability. At 17, she moved to New York City and ended up pursuing stand-up comedy as a career. Shlesinger describes her childhood as growing up with a single mother in a Dallas suburb where they were Jews in a very Christian environment.
McFarlane, a Canadian who grew up on an Alberta farm with no running water, remembers that she felt out-of-place in her own family: “To my family, I was a very strange person. I liked things they didn’t like. I found humor in things they didn’t find funny.”
Lampanelli, who has retired from stand-up comedy, says that she grew up with an emotionally abusive mother: “My mother was a big yeller. She had a lot of rage … And I think I was that middle child who could make mom laugh to diffuse the tension in the house. I, as a comic, was doing jokes to shut everybody up before they got to me.” Lampanelli is shown in the documentary hanging out pleasantly with her mother, so it seems they’re in a good place now with their relationship.
Bachman found fame in 2019 through a viral video of her performing at the New York City club Downtime and did some ad-libbed heckling at someone she didn’t expect to be in the audience: disgraced entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was at the show the year before he went on trial and was convicted of rape. In “Hysterical,” Bachman says that she’s a rape survivor, and seeing Weinstein triggered her to make comments directed at him.
While Bachman was on stage during that show, she mentioned being a rape survivor, called Weinstein “the elephant in the room,” and then said about him being at the club: “I didn’t know we had to bring our own mace and rape whistles.” At first, she got some boos from male-sounding people, while one unidentified man in the audience shouted at Bachman to “shut up.” But Bachman continued by saying “fuck you” to all rapists. Anyone who disapproved of what she was saying was drowned out by mostly female cheers from the audience.
Bachman’s rebuke of Weinstein and all other rapists got a lot of media attention and was widely praised by other comedians. In the “Hysterical” documentary, Glaser comments on this defining moment for Bachman: “That was fearless. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.” Griffin, who is no stranger to controversy, says with admiration about Bachman’s takedown of Weinstein and rapists: “That was nothing less than an act of civil disobedience.”
Just like some of the other comedians in the documentary, Bachman says comedy is a form of therapy for her: “Everyone in [my] family has touched trauma. It’s not something we talk about, so we chose to laugh at funerals, we choose to laugh when somebody is getting divorced. Someone has the job to make things funny. We look to that person, and it helps. And I made the choice to be that person in my family.”
Women of color have the added burden of dealing with racism. Franklin, Shepherd and Lynch (who is a Latina) all tell stories about experiencing racist bullying when they were children and other racism when they became adults. Lynch, who spent part of her childhood in Spain before her family moved to the U.S. , says she was often ridiculed because of her Spanish accent when she talked.
Franklin says of the racism she experienced in her childhood, “Back then, you had to learn how to live with it. And one of the ways I did was by being funny.” Shepherd comments on her career: “As a black woman, I had to fight for a spot. I really, really had to prove that I was funny.”
Cho repeats some of her well-known stories of how her Korean American heritage and her body size were used as reasons to demean her. A low point for her was when TV executives pressured her to lose a dangerous amount of weight when she starred on the 1994-1995 sitcom “All-American Girl.” Cho says of her experiences with being body-shamed: “I have achieved more peace in my body as I’ve gotten older, but it took a long time to get there.” She has also experienced a lot of prejudice from people who think all Asian women are supposed to be quiet and submissive.
Although female entertainers are often expected to look as attractive as possible, Cho says that female comedians have a double-edged sword because people often have this attitude about women in comedy: “Don’t be too pretty. A beautiful woman is a threat.” Glaser adds, “You can be very pretty and funny. The only requirement is that you feel ugly on the inside.”
Feimster, who identifies as a lesbian, also talks about what it’s like to be a female comedian who proudly doesn’t fit into a stereotypical mold of female gender conformity or body size. She admits there have been many times when she’s been insecure about it, but ultimately, her differences make her stand out from many other female stand-up comics. Much of her stand-up comedy act talks about these issues.
Gold, another openly lesbian comedian, says that the bullying and awkwardness that she experienced in her youth had a lot to do with her tall height (she’s 6’3″) and being a “tomboy” as a child. And when she started to become taller than most of her peers, she turned any insecurities about her height into eventual jokes that made their way into her stand-up comedy act.
Feimster also echoes what many people interviewed in the documentary say about their comedy material coming from a place of emotional “damage.” She laughs when she explains why women want to become stand-up comedians: “There’s probably a lot of us that’s filling some sort of void.”
Kirson says something similar in this comment: “I say this on stage: No matter how much you clap, you’ll never fill the hole. We’re just trying to fill this hole and get attention that we’ve always wanted and can’t get.”
Don’t mistake “Hysterical” for a non-stop whinefest. It’s not. The comedians also frequently say what they love about doing stand-up. That type of passion is what keeps them going in their toughest times. And there’s quite a bit of laugh-out-loud footage of all of the comedians doing what they do on stage as examples of why they’ve achieved a certain level of fame.
All of the comedians, in one way or another, say that doing stand-up comedy is not something they chose but something that chose them. For Shepherd, stand-up comedy is about “the joy I get from getting on stage and being able to take people on a journey to a place where they can forget what they’re going through.” Feinstein says what she gets out of stand-up: “I have control. I’m a storyteller. I get to tell my tale.”
Feimster comments, “The beauty of comedy is I have a voice, I have a microphone, and I can go out and do my thing.” Later in the documentary, Feimster says, “I was a cautious kid, so it’s weird that I ended up in this job that has such a lack of stability, and you’re having to take risks all the time.”
Cho adds, “It’s mostly people’s biggest fear to get up in front of others and try to make them laugh. But, for me, when I was very different and very young, I also had to convince people that I had something important to say.”
Franklin comments, “The best experience on stage is when the whole room is with you, and you feel like you’re truly sharing a story that you can connect with.” Shlesinger says that stand-up comedy has a unique rhythm like no other form of entertainment: “It’s almost melodic. It’s almost like singing, like you can just riff and knowing that you can take them [the audience] anywhere.” Lynch says, “The very first time I performed on stage was for two minutes. And right then, I felt like I’d just married and had a baby.”
Speaking of marriage and children, the documentary fortunately doesn’t seem preoccupied about asking details about what type of family planning these women might or might not have. It’s a line of questioning that female entertainers are asked a lot more than male entertainers. Shepherd and McFarlane talk briefly about the challenges of raising kids while being a traveling stand-up comedian. (McFarlane takes her daughter Rayna Lynn, who was born in 2007, on the road with her.)
The documentary also mentions the hazards of being an up-and-coming stand-up comedian who doesn’t have the luxury of security guards or other people as protection against crazy audience members, stalkers or other potential dangers to safety. Many female stand-up comedians travel alone from city to city. And sometimes, promoters will put them in the same hotel room or condo with other comedians (almost always male) whom the women do not know.
Franklin is shown having a conversation with a male comedian friend and telling him about a bad experience she had where she stayed at a hotel on his enthusiastic recommendation, but the hotel and the surrounding area turned out to be very unsafe. The more she described the unsafe conditions, the more the male comedian began to understand that from his perspective as a man, the place wasn’t so bad. But from a female perspective, it was not a good place to be alone.
Sexual harassment and/or sexual assault seem to be experienced by the majority of female stand-up comedians in relation to their job. Most of the women don’t go into details, but some of the women describe the derogatory comments, sexual groping without consent and other unwanted touching that they’ve experienced as stand-up comedians. The general attitude is that these degrading experiences come with the territory, but more women now are more likely to report misconduct than they were in the past.
The movie makes a passing mention of how female comedians are often put in tricky #MeToo situations by people who can later claim that their offensive comments or actions were “just a joke” that a comedian should be able to take. Some of the women interviewed in the documentary hint that they feel pressure to be like “one of the guys” and have “thick skin” when sexual degradation is in their presence. The documentary should have asked this question: Is a woman who has a lot of sexually explicit raunchiness in her stand-up comedy act more likely to be considered “fair game” to be targeted for sexually explicit offensiveness?
If the offender is a comedian, the documentary could have used more exploration of the complicated issue of how comedy is used as an excuse to justify offensive things that aren’t illegal. There also should have been some discussion of “cancel culture” and how far back in someone’s life should offensive comments or actions be used to “cancel” that person. There are no easy answers, but the documentary could have asked more of these questions to get the perspectives of these female comedians, many of whom have a lot of sexually explicit content in their comedy acts.
Being a stand-up comedian, regardless of gender, is hard on a stand-up comedian’s love life. Almost all of the women talk about their love lives as part of their stand-up comedy act. And there’s an appreciation for how far things have changed from the days when it was scandalous for female stand-up comedians to talk about sex. However, gender double standards remain. Comedians vary when it comes to how raunchy or politically outspoken they want to be in their stand-up comedy acts.
The documentary mentions the 2017 controversy over Griffin posing for a photo while holding up a fake, bloodied head of Donald Trump, who was president of the U.S. at the time. The backlash was swift and far-reaching: Griffin was blacklisted from performing in most of the U.S., and she was put on a government watch list. Griffin’s 2019 documentary: “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story” chronicled this controversy and her comeback tour outside the United States. In “Hysterical,” Griffin doesn’t really say anything new that she didn’t already say in her own documentary about this subject.
“Hysterical” has a compilation of footage of male entertainers (such as the rock band Gwar) who depicted the beheading or mutilation of Trump as part of their stage acts but never got the type of backlash and career damage that Griffin did. Glaser says of the Griffin controversy: “It was all so much bullshit. She got so railroaded.” Cho adds, “They would never treat a male comedian that way.”
Even with gender double standards, many of the comedians in “Hysterical” say that stand-up comedy is still a form of entertainment where people have true freedom of expression. (However, comedians still face career consequences if their material is considered too offensive.) Glaser comments, “I used to feel like ‘ugh,’ when comedians would pat themselves on the back and say that we are the last bastions of free speech. It’s like we kind of are. When someone tells me I can’t talk about something, I want to do it more.”
“Hysterical” has a brief overview of influential female stand-up comedians over the years. Moms Mabley, Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields, Bella Barth, Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers are all mentioned as being pioneers in their own ways. Franklin mentions Wanda Sykes as being a personal inspiration to her when Franklin started out in stand-up comedy.
But for many of the women interviewed in this documentary, being a stand-up comedian was not something they were taught to believe was a realistic career choice for a woman. Shlesinger is the only one in the documentary who says that it never occurred to her that she couldn’t be a stand-up comedian because she was a woman. And almost all female stand-up comedians have had plenty of naysayers in their lives who told them that they shouldn’t be stand-up comedians.
On average, women tend to have shorter careers in stand-up comedy than men do, because they’re more likely to experience age discrimination and more likely to stop touring for family-related reasons. But regardless of where a female stand-up comedian is in her career, she’s more likely to lose out on job opportunities to men. And this gender discrimination causes a lot of women to get discouraged and give up.
A large part of this self-doubt and insecurity comes from long-held sexist practices of booking women in only one or two slots in a stand-up comedy lineup where men get not only the majority of the slots but also the best (headlining) slots in most cases. It’s mentioned repeatedly in the documentary that female stand-up comedians have been so accustomed to these limited opportunities, it was hard to for them to feel camaraderie with female comedians because they saw each other as competition.
Griffin says of women trying to get booked into a lineup of comedians: “There was a time when it seemed like there really was only room for one.” McFarlane agrees: “It was hard to like another woman [comedian] because you felt threatened because only one person is going to get the job.”
That’s not to say that stand-up comedy is any less cutthroat for women. Nor does it mean that women are not immune to jealous rivalries. But nowadays, female comedians say they’re much more likely to reach out and support other female comedians. More venues and promoters are becoming open to booking more than just one woman in a comedy lineup. And a few places sometimes host all-female comedy lineups.
The female comedians in the documentary say that things have gradually improved as there’s slowly been progress in job opportunities for women in comedy. However, it’s up to women to join forces and create supportive networks for each other, which is something that male comedians have been informally doing for years. Franklin comments, “I never understood sexism until I got into the comedy scene.”
Shlesinger adds, “Men have always gotten to do things first, whether it’s owning property or freedom of speech or anything fun. By sheer numbers, men have been doing comedy for longer [than women have].” The general consensus that the female comedians have is that the best way to change the outdated mindset that men should always dominate in comedy is for the public to vote with their wallets and by making more requests for diverse lineups of talented comedians.
In the “Hysterical” documentary, Kirson mentions New York City venues such as Comedy Cellar and The Stand and Los Angeles venues such as The Comedy Store and The Improv as having welcoming communities for comedians of any gender: “There are certain clubs were people really become family and close and hang out.”
Feinstein, Glaser and Kirson are shown hanging out together at Comedy Cellar. There’s also some footage of Franklin spending time at Comedy Cellar with some comedian friends, including Jeff Ross. The documentary includes archival footage of comedians Amy Schumer, Glaser and Bridget Everett in a car and speaking words of support and encouragement to Griffin during Griffin’s scandal.
The support for each other isn’t all just lip service. Liebman produces a show for up-and-coming comedians called Locally Grown Comedy at the Los Angeles-area nightclub Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. The documentary includes footage from one of these shows. Liebman says that she personally looks out for young talent whom she can mentor, especially women, since she knows how much harder it is for women than men to break into stand-up comedy.
Some of the women in the documentary believe that the #MeToo movement is a major factor in this shift toward more female comedians having more solidarity with each other than in previous decades. Bachman says, “Once you stand up to power, the narrative changes.” Women in stand-up comedy are also starting to verbally push back, on stage and off, on certain people trying to dictate what beauty standards are, since these beauty standards can affect how people are treated in society.
One of the best and most emotionally touching parts of the documentary is how it covers Franklin’s journey in going public with having breast cancer. There’s footage of Franklin telling some of her comedian friends about it and revealing that she’s going to go on stage and try out some jokes about her cancer for the first time. After the friends get over the shock of Franklin having cancer and see her performance (which got a standing ovation from the audience), Franklin is shown being somewhat overwhelmed by all the love and support. And fortunately, she is now in remission from the cancer.
The women in “Hysterical” expose a lot of insecurities about themselves on stage and in the documentary. But they also show a lot more strength than they might give themselves credit for, because not too many people would have the courage to turn their personal pain into something that will make people laugh. By allowing these comedians to tell their stories, without “gatekeepers” (agents, managers, comedy promoters, talent bookers) and other talking heads interrupting and drowning out their voices, director Nevins gives each woman the chance to shine in her own way in the documentary. It’s a film that’s worth watching by anyone who enjoys talented stand-up comedians and people who speak their own truths unapologetically.
FX premiered “Hysterical” on April 2, 2021.